It seems decades since HTC launched the fantastic One M7, a flagship smartphone that has elevated the company's design and engineering team to elite status. Since then, HTC has stagnated and even reasonable devices like last year's HTC 10 just haven't sold nearly enough to keep the company happy.
And that brings me to the device that is on hand today: the HTC U Ultra. Unfortunately, this is not a smartphone that will bring HTC back to its heyday. If anything, weird design decisions show us that HTC is currently lacking innovative thinking in its engineering department.
The HTC U Ultra is a huge handset. It has a 5.7-inch display as well as a secondary display, similar to the LG V20, and capacitive navigation buttons. Combined with large bezels and a huge chin, the U Ultra can be an unwieldy device. It's definitely too big for its display, and at a time when LG and Samsung are switching to displays that are trying to cover the entire front of the phone, the U Ultra immediately seems to be out of date.
The U Ultra was made from high-quality materials: glass at the front and back and metal on the sides. This is a combination we've seen on Samsung devices before, and HTC has done it pretty well here, though maybe not as well as Samsung.
The problem with using a glass back on any phone is that it can be quite slippery. Considering how difficult it can be to hold and operate this massive phone on a good day, the glass back doesn't do you a favor. This is not a clumsy people phone.
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The glossy glass bottom is also a massive magnet for fingerprints. The back is one of the most reflective panes of glass I've ever seen and attracts all types of fat and oil like nothing else. I like keeping my phones clean, but that's an impossible task with HTC U Ultra. If you only lift this handset, fingerprints are left on the back, which affects the otherwise beautiful design.
HTC chose slimness for the U Ultra. The phone is 8 mm thick and weighs 170 grams, which is appropriate for a phone of this size. However, for some bizarre reason, HTC only managed to stuff a 3,000 mAh battery inside, which is far below average. This has a massive impact on battery life, as I'll explain later. The U Ultra also has a camera bump, so HTC may need to fill the phone with a larger battery to the thickness of the camera.
While the capacitive buttons on the U Ultra are hard to press – the back button is a stretch if you're using the phone in your right hand – I'm pleased that a fingerprint sensor is included here. This sensor on the back would be more convenient, but the sensor still responds and works well as a home button.
The headphone jack is one of the biggest omissions here. This stupid design decision started with Apple and is just awful. In 2017, most people still use wired headphones, and many have their favorite pair. Although the headphones that come with HTC are adequate, I don't want to use them through my trusted Sennheiser earphones. Unless I can't use my favorite earphones because HTC chose to leave out the headphone jack.
I even tried using a third-party USB-C to 3.5mm audio dongle for the U Ultra, only to find out that these accessories are "incompatible" and I used the supplied HTC headphones instead should use. So the U Ultra knows that I have connected a 3.5 mm audio jack dongle, but I cannot use it. What a ridiculous, hostile decision.
However, the design of the U Ultra has some better aspects. You get stereo speakers and BoomSound, with the U Ultra combining the call speaker with a lower speaker to enhance the audio experience. It's not quite as good as two front stereo speakers, but it comes close. In addition to 64 GB of memory, a microSD card slot is included, so you are well secured in terms of memory.
One of the U Ultra's main attractions and something HTC hasn't done before is the secondary display. It is a 2.05-inch [1040 x 160] panel that is located above the top right corner of the handset and provides additional controls and information. While this is a nice idea, it doesn't add much to the experience in practice, and many of the functions of the secondary display are simple gimmicks.
The main uses for the additional display are notifications and shortcuts. Whenever you receive a notification, it will appear in the secondary display so that you can see a small piece of information in each app. That sounds good, but Android phones have been using pop-down cards for a while when notifications arrive. In practice, the same result is achieved without using an additional screen. It's a similar story with shortcuts to music controls, contacts, apps, etc.: It's handy to have this feature in a small extra screen, but you can largely get the same experience by quickly jumping to your home screen.
The additional display also works when the main display is switched off. You can lift the handset or tap the screen while it's off to see the time and basic notification icons. Again, neat but always on displays without secondary displays were implemented on both AMOLED and LCD-loaded handsets.
The main display is a 5.7-inch Super LCD5 with 2560 x 1440 inches and a pixel density of 513 PPI. This screen offers a sharp viewing experience and, like previous super LCD panels, the viewing angles are great for an LCD. Its peak brightness is acceptable at around 450 nits, although it lags behind some other modern LCDs, some of which can push up to 700 or 800 nits in direct sunlight.
Due to issues with an app that I use to test on HTC U Ultra, I was unable to run my usual display color tests. However, I can report that the contrast of 1547: 1 is good and the color temperature of this display is not fantastic and thanks to the accentuated blue it clearly falls into the "cold" area. You can correct the color temperature somewhat using the display settings of the U Ultra.
In general, the U Ultra's display looks decent, as do many of today's flagship smartphones. It is disappointing that the U Ultra does not support Daydream because a 5.7-inch 1440p display is well suited for VR applications.